Review: Radio at Arcola Theatre

PUBLISHED: 15:05 26 June 2019

Adam Gillen in Radio at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Helen Maybanks.

Adam Gillen in Radio at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Helen Maybanks.

Copyright Helen Maybanks 2019

Al Smith’s one-man play about an all-American boy who dreams of taking part in the moon landing was first seen in 2006.

Adam Gillen in Radio at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Helen Maybanks.Adam Gillen in Radio at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Helen Maybanks.

It's a tender father-son story that sees the hopeful optimism of the space race give way to the dark realities of the Vietnam War.

Given the current crisis in American identity, a revival seems timely. Under the taut direction of Josh Roche, an atmospheric world of Middle American spit and sawdust life is vividly conjured.

But the sweep of the narrative - spanning decades - and the rich detail rather obscures the continuing relevance of its central themes.

Smith plays with a poetic notion of determinism: Charlie Fairbanks was born in the dead centre of the United States at the dead centre of the 20th century.

When a team from the Geographical Society turn up laden with maps and compasses to decree that the family farm - outside Lebanon, Kansas - is 'the dead centre of the United States - Congratulations!' his baffled parents soon seize the opportunity to produce flags for goggle-eyed tourists desperate to find the center of their national pride.

Alongside his parents, Charlie spends hours stitching stars ands stripes onto endless fabric, the family glued to the radio that brings them news, music and access to 'that pure dream world'.

When Charles Senior is offered a large sum for their land, they move to North Dakota and it seems their flag making days are over.

But, coincidentally, the centre of America shifts again - with the addition of Alaska - and the Fairbanks are soon 'back in business'.

Charlie references key historical moments: Apollo 12 being struck by lightning, the change of Presidents, the Vietnam War but the milestones strike easy notes of emotional significance.

Likewise the cosmic metaphors are predictable, though the spare set, broken up by an abstract mix of wood, provides an original backdrop for a beautifully rendered scene where Charlie imagines he's in the Apollo spacecraft.

Adam Gillen as Charlie is perfect as a dazed lost boy/ man struggling to navigate a path through this fast-track slice of American history.

It's a shame the play doesn't ultimately quite take off.

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